Hello! welcome to my blog. Here, I will be posting about my research and other science stories that excites me. I will occasionally write about things I enjoy like football, music (mostly hip hop/hip life), photography (learning now) and other fun stuff. Hopefully, you will find some of the content I put out here helpful.
For a start, allow me to tell you a bit about me. I am Mohammed Armani and I like to think that am a plant ecologist. Actually, it feels surreal to refer to myself as “plant ecologist”. To start with, I never planned to become an ecologist. I grew up in small town (Enchi) located in the humid-tropical forest region of Ghana (West Africa). As a kid, I never thought much about the forest or nature as something to be excited about. Most of the local stories often characterized forests as a place with scary and mean evil spirits. My only aspiration was to complete high education and find a good job. I had no “dream job” and becoming an ecologist was certainly not on my mind.
In high school I majored in Agricultural science. I took this decision as a compromise. Although I liked most science subjects, I was terrified of math-based subjects. By choosing Agric major I was able to evade elective math. But I became concerned about the working conditions in the Ministry of Agriculture (their office building in my hometown did not help in this respect). I thought the Forestry Commission had better conditions (much nicer office, bigger and better cars!) and thus decided to pursue an undergraduate degree in Natural Resources Management (KNUST, Ghana).
Upon graduating, I opted to remain at my faculty for my national service[i] hoping to use this period to search for postgraduate opportunities abroad. I failed in getting a scholarship though and decided to find a job. Fortunately, timber companies in Ghana were being pressured by their European and American buyers to obtain FSC certification. I got a job as forest certification manager and worked for a couple of years assisting members of the Kumasi Wood Cluster Association to adapt their internal protocols to be consistent with the FSC principle, criteria and indicators. This work was heavy on documentation and required me to read extensively about the social, economic, and ecological aspects of forest management. With time, I started developing interest in the scientific process that underpins sustainable forest management.
As we say in Ghana, a thing that is yours will always find its way to you eventually. In 2010, I was awarded a JJ/WBGSP fellowship to pursue an MSc. in forest and Nature Conservation at Wageningen University (WUR, Netherlands). Let us face it, the scholarship stipend was 3X my salary and the opportunity to move to Europe (a dream of every Ghanaian kid) was just too much to resist. The intention was to take more policy and management courses to pave the way for me going into public office of some sort. Little did I know that my stay at WUR will set me on a completely different career trajectory. It was at WUR, in an advanced course in forest ecology (taught by Prof. Lourens Poorter), that the love for plant ecology blossomed. I was intrigued by the diversity of strategies that plants employ to reproduce, compete, or adapt to limiting factors in their environments.
Around this time, the theory that forest and savanna represent alternative stable biome states (ABSS) was emerging. I knew little about savannas back then! It is actually surprising that savanna occupies about 70% of the land area in Ghana yet there was hardly any savanna ecology course during my bachelors. There was no better way to transition from the world of forestry ecology to savanna ecology than to study the vegetation dynamics in the forest-savanna boundary (FSB). The FSB is particularly interesting because this is where forest and savanna meet and often occur under similar climatic conditions. For my master’s thesis research (details here) I was interested in establishing if neighbouring forest and savanna in the FSB in Ghana contained distinct species and traits (as was being elegantly demonstrated by William Hoffmann for South America).
My thesis defence caught the attention of Prof. Kyle Tomlinson (then a Postdoctoral fellow at WUR), who later offered me a PhD position. Kyle was interested in understanding the ecology and evolution of spiny plants. Although, like most people, I have had my nasty experiences with spiny plants, I had no idea that spininess was of such great interest to plant ecologist. During my PhD, I conducted a large common garden experiment where I grew over 95 spiny and non-spiny species. I then measured defence, growth, leaf economic spectrum, and biomass allocations traits on these saplings. Using this detailed trait dataset, I demonstrated that 1) spiny and non-spiny plants diverge in their growth-defence syndromes only in savannas, and 2) significant differences exist between different spine types (spines, thorns and prickles during early ontogeny (more here).
I defended my PhD thesis in November 2019 and now waiting (due to COVID-19) to start my postdoctoral fellowship at Rhodes University where I will be working with Dr. Nicola Stevens (Oxford University) and Prof. Sally Archibald (Wits University). I am looking forward to continue investigating plant traits, particularly covariations among plant traits (from leaf to whole-plant level) and how trait-trait co-expression (e.g., fire, herbivory, and drought traits) constrain or facilitate adaptations to changing resource and disturbance regimes.
So yeah, this has been quite an unromantic path to becoming a plant ecologist. I hope in future, the story will be much more inspiring and better written than this!
[i] All Ghanaian students that graduate from accredited tertiary institution are required to do a 1-year service.